Photo: Robert Johnson
Scott and Whitney G. don’t like to sleep in. During the week they’re up by 9:00 a.m. when the West 71st Street Lutheran Church super pounds on the building’s red front door beside where they sleep.
Scott, 23, lifts his head first. He shakes Whitney, 25, and they climb their feet.
I know this because one morning last week I was sitting by the curb in a Coleman camp chair waiting for them to get up.
For months I’ve wanted to tell their story. After chasing them around the Upper West Side for two weeks — following a series of missed meetings, notes left on their gear and my apartment entrance — I finally enter into stalker territory. Interviewing homeless people is no easy feat.
“I brought breakfast,” I holler to them when they’re finally standing and running their hands through their hair. They smile, and Scott excuses himself to hit the bathroom. I decide to tag along with him. I fold up my chair, stash it in the entry to my building, leave the bag of food with Whitney.
Scott and Whitney met on the campus of Bard College in Red Hook, NY two years ago this January.
“I was visiting a friend who went to school there and I met Whit’ at a party,” Scott says. “She thought I was a student.” He looks over at me, and quickly away, as we cross Broadway heading into Starbucks.
In fact, Scott had been homeless for five years when they met, ever since getting his high-school GED and leaving his mother’s home in Staten Island.
Whitney had just lost her job at a local supermarket when they met. For the first time since she was old enough to work, she was unemployed. Finding a job proved more difficult than she’d imagined. Before long, she had depleted her savings, and she and Scott began living on the streets full time.
Back at the church door, Whitney is up and stashing their gear. The doors are open now, and when we walk up she points to the ground. Their Starbucks cup filled with water and cigarette butts has spilled and gotten nicotine brown water on the slate in front of the church steps. “Sorry,” she says to Scott.
He looks at me and explains. “One of the reasons the church is cool with us sleeping here is we don’t make a mess.”
They’re folding their blankets when another local homeless man, Jacob, walks up and says good morning. They’ve already mentioned Jacob to me. He’s an alcoholic, and he can’t go long without alcohol or he has seizures. He’s mad because someone woke him up asking for vodka.
“Of course, I have five bottles,” he says pulling out a pint of Popov vodka. “But I don’t want to be handing them out while I’m asleep.”
The four of us head to ‘Needle Park,’ a wedge of bricks and benches between Broadway and Amsterdam made famous in the 1971 Al Pacino film The Panic In Needle Park.
“Cheerio” is someone else I’ve heard about. He’s already there wearing rainbow socks and skinny jeans rolled up to the knees. He’s homeless, but recently came into a $65,000 inheritance that’s allowed him to provide for others in the group. He bought Scott, Jacob, and Whitney new boots for winter, took them to see Steve Miller at the Beacon, and slips panhandlers hundred-dollar bills when the mood strikes him.
It’s rumoured that he’s down to 40-grand. Scott figures it’s much less.
Scott and Whitney have both tried staying in city shelters, although they’re forced to split up. Whitney got beaten up and robbed. Scott was robbed once and picked up lice the second time. Now, they alternate sleeping between the church and a spot in the park beneath a pine tree.
They go to Scott’s mum’s about every six weeks, as much as she allows.
“She’s a recovering alcoholic,” Scott explains. “My dad’s broke and lives in the Bronx. They have their own issues.”
Whitney’s dad is dead, and her mum doesn’t know she’s homeless. “I talk to her once a week,” she says. “We’re pretty close.” She suggests she’s living with friends and her mum doesn’t press. Whitney has asked me not to use her last name, because she doesn’t want her mum to find out she’s homeless and become upset.
Whitney and Scott are eager to be off the streets, and they recently got married. After months of tracking down paperwork in Red Hook, they picked up their marriage licence the third week in October and got married on the 27th. One of Scott’s high school friend’s who became ordained online performed the ceremony.
They’ve made arrangements with Goddard, an organisation that provides assistance to married couples looking for places to live. They’ve been told that once they’re married they’ll be eligible for an apartment. Off the streets they figure they can have a phone, keep their clothes clean and dry, shower, and find a job.
Scott wants to go back to school. They’re both avid readers. Whitney graduated from high school and Scott did a year at community college in Brooklyn. He’s been into French literature lately and posts books he has read and poems he writes to this page at GoodReads.com.
He has dreams of visiting Paris. Of going to NYU and becoming a writer. I ask him about politics, about Occupy Wall Street. He looks at me and says, “We’re not political.” He shrugs and turns to Whitney, “I’ve been through three presidents. My life hasn’t changed.”
I met Scott and Whitney because they sleep near my apartment on the Upper West Side. A series of meetings and notes led me to wait for them to wake up one morning last week. That orange circle on the right is peach smelling gum they used to stick a note on my building. I found it innovative. My landlord was not impressed.
Here's the church doorway they sleep in. I've walked by them dozens of times, and Whitney is always on the inside. The church's super pounded on the door moments later.
For just being woken up, and with a journalist in their faces taking pictures, the smiles were more than I expected.
Scott and Whitney lost everything during Irene. They left Manhattan and went to a friend's house in Staten Island that flooded with sewage, ruining their best backpack and their warmest sleeping bags for winter.
Scott's been homeless for 7 years. He has sought help from agencies, and had a brief part-time job at Quiznos. He and Whitney just got married to qualify for private housing assistance. They both want jobs, and Scott wants to go back to school. The unemployment rate for those with a GED is about 13%.
Scott recently applied for a job as a counter-man at a local bodega. After several visits, the owner pulled him aside and told him he only hires immigrants.
The streets are filled with homeless people with drug and alcohol addictions. Jacob is a severe alcoholic who cannot go long without liquor.
At 8:00 a.m. he's finishing his first pint as Scott and Whitney pack up to go eat their breakfast in 'Needle Park.' The couple are decidedly normal compared to everyone else I meet.
Jacob is very committed to his drinking. He had this tattooed on his hands years ago by an ex-girlfriend.
Another homeless man, Cheerio, came into some money recently and has been helping out the other homeless. He sometimes startles panhandlers by handing them $100 bills. Scott tells me Cheerio's personality swings dramatically and he can be very erratic.
They get their breakfast at this cart during the week. Their cash comes from panhandling. Whitney makes twice as much panhandling as Scott does. Together they pull in between $50 and $60 a day, enough to make small purchases.
The pair receive food stamps and have tried to find work repeatedly. Without a phone and a way to keep clothes clean, it's been hard to find work. They pick up very rare odd jobs — once being paid $20 a day to look for a lost cat.
It's like a cycle they've yet to break. What little money they get goes to making the present more bearable. The decision to save anything they can to focus on a murky path to employment has yet to happen. Marriage and housing looks to be their first solid plan to break the routine.
Another homeless man, Phillip, was eager to share Jacob's vodka at breakfast. He wanted my number to help with his new music publishing venture. (That is not his guitar, and that cell phone is not working.)
The group will pass in and out of this small park during the day. Starbucks' bathroom is across the street. The park lies between Whit's panhandling spot on 72nd and Scott's at 65th.
I did not ask them to hold hands. Although they're obviously close, they split up when they panhandle to have time apart.
They take me to the spot in the park where they sleep when not at the church, on the condition that I promise not to disclose its location. They tell me it's out of the way and the police can't see them on their nighttime patrols.
They'll come here when it snows. The branches, they tell me, weigh down with snow and seal them off from the world.
Keeping a supply of 'butt hits' available is a constant effort. Once, picking up butts outside a nightclub, the owner chased them off, not believing they were homeless.
This is the tree where they plan to get married. Scott calls it the 'mind tree' from the days when one of his high school friends would sit in its branches and read — expanding his mind, he used to say.
Scott used to sleep in the branches, until he fell in a rainstorm one night. He broke his fall by grabbing a branch, but he worries what would have happened if he'd been hurt.
Scott still has his ATM card from when he held a job and had a checking account. They come to TD Bank to cash in their change.
They rotate their signs and tell me that African-Americans give the most often. Asians give the least frequently, but the greatest amounts. Arab women will push their husbands to give.
And she misses her dad. I found this note stuck to my door after we hung out. She wanted me to know how her dad died and how much he meant to her. I hadn't asked. It just seemed too much.
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